Where to for the KMT after Han Kuo-yu’s failed bid for Taiwan president?

Sarah Zheng

Uncertainty hangs over the political future of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu and the embattled Kuomintang (KMT) party after their heavy losses in Taiwan’s election over the weekend, analysts said.

Han, from the mainland-friendly KMT, lost the presidency by a 20-point margin to incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on Saturday.

Tsai gained a record-breaking 8 million votes – nearly 3 million more than Han – in results seen as a repudiation of closer ties with Beijing as well as Han as a candidate.

Beijing should get friendly with Taiwan under Tsai

The KMT also failed to break the DPP’s hold on the island’s legislature, securing just 38 of the 113 seats compared to the DPP’s 61. Taiwan’s electorate turned out in great numbers to give the DPP the legislative majority over the KMT, with turnout at 74.9 per cent compared to only 66 per cent.

Observers said Han – who will return to work on Monday as mayor of the former DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung – faces a recall campaign against him for “abandoning” the southern city to run for president.

Han won Kaohsiung in a landslide in November 2018 to become the city’s first KMT mayor in nearly two decades. But on Saturday, he managed just 34.6 per cent of the votes in the city compared to Tsai’s 62.2 per cent, one of the worst results for him out of Taiwan’s 22 primary administrative regions.

“Since the people of the Republic of China (ROC) have made their decision, as a candidate I can only accept the result,” Han said in Kaohsiung to grim-faced supporters, using the official name for Taiwan. “I can only say that I have not worked hard enough and have let you all down.”

KMT chairman Wu Den-yih and other top leaders resigned late on Saturday to take responsibility for the losses, despite Wu’s promise to take back the legislature. Wu said the KMT had failed to meet its expectations and needed to improve.

After conceding, the KMT said on Twitter that it would “take this very seriously”.

“We [will] and must do our utmost, as a responsible opposition party, to oversee the ruling DPP in the four years to come in order to seek Taiwan’s greatest interests,” it wrote.

KMT vice-chairman Hau Lung-bin, who also stepped down, wrote on Facebook that each time the party had lost in the past, there had been calls for reform and unity but they were not heeded.

“Comrades, what path can our party take now? Besides destroying everything and rebuilding what other path do we have? This is the only choice for us to hope to emerge from the ruins!”

Lev Nachman, a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan, said the election was “a clear rejection of Han” and endorsement of Tsai as candidates rather than of their respective parties.

Nachman pointed to the KMT’s showing in the 34 at-large legislator seats, which are allocated based on each party’s share of the overall vote. In this case, the KMT had 33.3 per cent of support compared to the DPP on 34 per cent.

Hong Kong protesters in Taiwan celebrate election result, stage demonstration

“Wu took a bet on Han and lost,” he said. “Although he lost, he has still tapped into something in Taiwan that will not simply die down because Han lost. He is still mayor of Kaohsiung and still has a platform to continue mobilising his base of support.”

Nachman added that the KMT’s 2016 presidential candidate, Eric Chu Li-luan, could re-cement his position in the party. Terry Gou, a tycoon and failed 2020 KMT presidential contender, could also try to regain influence in the party, although Han’s voters would not “simply go away”.

Han supporter and Kaohsiung resident Chanel Kao wiped away tears as she described her disappointment over Han’s loss, slamming the recall effort against him and the DPP’s failures to fix Kaohsiung’s problems while in power.

“Of course we will continue to follow in mayor Han’s footsteps,” she said. “From the very beginning, I have supported Han Kuo-yu. If they want to recall Han, we will go out and support Han.”

Analysts said Han’s campaign was undermined by divisions in the KMT, Han’s personal blunders and pro-Beijing image, and the KMT’s controversial list of candidates. The party needed to reach out to younger voters, who mostly turned out for Tsai, energised by issues such as same-sex marriage and her support for Hong Kong protesters, they said.

“Tsai’s campaign message that ‘today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan’ really moved a lot of young people, so the DPP earned a lot of points there,” Lin Ying-yu, assistant professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs at National Chung Cheng University, said. “The DPP also fielded younger candidates, while the KMT’s at-large candidates and its candidates in general were too old, making it difficult to attract a younger electorate.”

Jonathan Sullivan, a Taiwan expert from the University of Nottingham, said Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je’s Taiwan People’s Party gained seats in the Legislative Yuan for the first time, laying the groundwork for a presidential run next time around.

“The KMT can take small comfort from its showing in the party list vote, knowing that Han was a flawed candidate and essentially an outsider within the KMT,” he said. “What they do with Han now, and whether they can regenerate, bring new people through and appeal to young people is a big question.“

Timothy Rich, from Western Kentucky University, said the KMT “failed to look inward” after losing the presidential election in 2016, recovering in the November 2018 local elections by focusing instead on populism and attacking issues such as same-sex marriage.

“Now the party must consider fundamental changes unless it wishes to be the opposition party for years to come,” he said. “A party that remains focused on Chinese identity and on campaigns that were effective 20 years ago risks not only strengthening the DPP but encouraging new parties to fill the void left by the KMT.”

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